Michael Mann’s latest is a love-struck slow dance through the life of Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), a “greatest moments” procedural with style to burn, opening with images from Ali’s pre-political life. The young boxer jogs despite taunts from white cops, the shadow of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) looming over the proceedings. Later, Cassius Clay snags the heavyweight title, dons the Ali surname via Muslim Nation baptismal and soon becomes the “people’s champ,” but if Ali’s spiritual and political awakening is a give-in, Mann’s take on the boxer’s emancipation is shoddy; even when a trip to Africa promises humility, Ali is still little more than a showcase of bluster. The film is, um, punchy, but it lacks for The Insider‘s intelligent emotional and political complexity.
Ever since Heat borrowed the techno bliss of Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters,” Mann’s soundtracks haven’t left the stratosphere, and Ali is a biopic music video seemingly cued to Moby’s Play, its soundscape drunk on piano and soulful moans. Once Ali begins his rumble in the jungle, African tribal beats soar for dramatic effect, but this sonic sawmill does occasionally haunt: Jaime Foxx’s Drew “Bundini” Brown falls prey to heroin and begs for Ali’s forgiveness, his breakdown complemented by a song’s merciful lyrics. But if Mann stunningly heightens Brown’s pain through a mirror’s reflection, the Brown-Ali relationship is still forged with too little dramatization to merit all the sonic fireworks.
The ABC Sports program hosted by Howard Cosell (John Voight) turns into Ali’s boastful platform when the fighter takes jabs at everyone from Cosell’s wife to his opponent’s ugliness. Suggesting a well-executed SNL sketch, these scenarios lighten things up but Mann never delineates the cause of Ali’s pomposity. If Ali’s friendship to Cosell tamed racist hearts, you wouldn’t know it from watching Ali: Mann never tackles the racial underpinnings of Ali’s story head on, and as such the film walks an awkward line between serious docudrama and satire. Ali’s fights with his father become feeble-minded diatribes against enslavement while the entire black cast is rendered comical through their spewing of clever jokes and one-liners. Voight successfully channels Cosell but has nothing on Christopher Plummer’s Mike Wallace from The Insider. Like Mykelti Williamson’s Don King, Voight’s Cosell is merely an impersonation sans justification.
An erotic dance between Ali and Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith) gives way to domestic harmony before advice from the Muslim Nation gracelessly transitions into a new marriage and an unexplained child in a crib. Ali always remains an enigma, accused of self-martyrdom by his second wife, Belinda (Nona M. Gaye), during Mann’s only attempt at exploring the boxer’s home life. But Mann still free-floats through Ali’s many relationships, and the timeline he crafts is so screwy that no one’s emotions feel real or at stake. There is one mitigating factor amid Mann’s show-offy style: Jogging through African streets, Ali is struck by his place on the cultural pecking order. He is the people’s champ, a demigod for folk who measure liberation by success—a rare moment of insight, made palpable by Smith’s sensitivity.
Mann can be deep, but he settles here for name-dropping black icons (Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr.). Ali mouths off to Congress, defending his right not to fight in Vietnam. He is now the accidental freedom fighter, vigorously incendiary thanks to Smith’s jiggy appropriation of the real-life boxer’s speech patterns and body movements. The Muslim Nation drops Ali when he loses a fight only to reinstate him once he regains the heavyweight title; the boxer may call them on their crimes but he’s still all about the benjamins. Mann’s Ali, though, doesn’t seem to occupy a real place in the Civil Rights movement, instead riding along as it happens. Ali and Malcolm X share a tender moment while a metaphorical termite documentary plays on television, but X’s death seems tangential to the boxer’s life. If Ali were serious about X not disrespecting the Muslim Nation you’d never know it because he himself is shamelessly devoid of spirit—which isn’t the point of the film but Mann fails to find a dialectic between the man and the religion.
Ali‘s narrative laxness comes at the fault of boxing time (a good one-third of the film’s three-hour time span is spent inside the ring). You say: But Mann knows how to direct a fight. But I say: So what? Hallucinating stadium skylights complement the bone-crunching punches while Mann’s low angles on Smith’s feet capture the full breadth of Ali’s classic butterfly moves, but the rapid-fire close-up shots of glove-to-face action distract from rather than illuminate Ali’s human prowess. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork glamorously flutters from blue-toned America to sepia-drenched Africa, and you can tell that that Mann was just buying time with the film’s domestic dramas—eager to give his photographic spin to the Rumble in the Jungle legend. Mann dares to make Ali an abrasive braggart (blowing hot air and dodging punches more like a coward than a graceful butterfly), though it might be difficult for some to distinguish where Ali ends and Smith begins. Ali is an avant-garde Pay-Per-View boxing match, but where’s the soul?